Dionysius Lardner.

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plied, " Oui, monsieur, a faire peur." On another oc-
casion he was engaged in a duel with a friend, who imper-
tinently compared him to the animal above mentioned.
To add to the wildness and singularity of his appear-
ance, he was fond, in an awkward sort of imitation of
Alfieri, of appearing immersed in thought, maintaining
a gloomy silence, interrupted only as he muttered, or
rather growled forth, various quotations or verses, in a
voice which made an Italian young lady once name him
<c a sentimental clap of thunder." Such was the outward
appearance and manners of the Italian Werter ; and if
he met with success among the fair sex, it must be
attributed to the ready sympathy they are apt to afford
to sincere feeling, and to a generous, independent spirit.
]SO. When Bonaparte, under the name of first consul,
.F.tat. rose to supreme power in France, it became necessary
24. to remodel the Cisalpine republic ; and a congress of
450 deputies was held at Lyons, to decide on the new
form of government. On this occasion Foscolo pub-
lished an " Oration to Bonaparte." A good deal of
uncertainty exists as to the exact circumstances under
which this oration was composed. It has been sup-
posed that it was delivered publicly at the congress;
but there is no foundation for this idea, as Foscolo was
not one of the deputies, and did not accompany them
to Lyons. It is said, on one hand, that he wrote it at
the desire of Bonaparte himself; and on the other, that
the task was intrusted to him by the triumvirate, who,
under the title of committee of government, were
placed at the head of the Cisalpine republic ; and it is
said that the oration was delivered before the com-
mittee itself*, which, considering its nature, can hardly
be believed. It commences with a grandiloquent eulp-
gium of Napoleon ; it then diverges into indignant and
sarcastic representations of the mal-conduct of the heads
of the republic. " Men," he describes them, " who are
neither statesmen nor warriors, formerly slaves, now
tyrants, and for ever slaves of themselves, and of circum-

* Teccliio, "Vita tli L'go Foscolo."


stances, which they neither will nor can command ;
conscious of their own vices, and therefore timid and dis-
cordant ; cowardly with the bold, bold with the cowardly,
they crush accusations by bribery, and complaints by
menaces. Men who took the arms out of the hands of
the militia soldiery, an army formed of citizens, to give
them to bands of runaway felons and deserters." He
then dilates on the miseries endured in Italy during the
period of the success of the Austrians and Russians,
and describes Bonaparte's return as the advent of a
demigod ; and he calls on him to complete his work by
assuming the supreme command, instead of leaving it to
the triumvirate, who betrayed the cause of liberty and
oppressed their countrymen. Independent as Foscolo
was, we are surprised when he goes on to say, that
every patriotic Italian would elect Bonaparte for their
legislator, captain, father, and perpetual prince. But
this surprise diminishes when we read on, and find that
he expects this supreme ruler to gift the subject country
with liberty. He entreats him not to entrust the state
to men, but to laws ; not to the generosity of other na-
tions, but to its own force. <( Let such be your insti-
tutions," he exclaims, " such your example, such our
strength, that no one shall dare rule us after you. Who,
indeed, would be worthy to succeed to Bonaparte? As
you cannot live for ever for us, let the seal of our liberty
be set ; you yourself leaving it inviolate : and, with the
whole nation, I call freedom our not having (with the ex-
ception of Bonaparte) any magistrate who is not Italian,
nor any general who is not our fellow-citizen. If, while
you live, our liberty totters, what hope have we that it
will endure after you are withdrawn from the earth ?
No ! there is no liberty, no property, no life, no soul
in any country, and under whatever form of govern-
ment, when national independence is fettered !"

It is impossible that Foscolo, despite his assertions,
and despite, perhaps, his hopes, should not have been
aware that the strongest chain that can be imposed on
the freedom of a nation is its having a foreign prince

B B 2


at the head of government. Still he vindicated the cause
he espoused, by demanding national institutions and a
national army. The style of the oration is forcible, but
too rhetorical ; and, though full of truths that intimidated
the oppressors and did honour to the free spirit of the
writer, calmer representations and closer reasoning would
command more of our admiration. Not that such would
have availed with the conqueror: Italy was, to him,
only one other lever added to the vast engine of military
force which was to raise him to the throne of the

Yet, though not gifted with liberty, the present epoch
was a happy one for the north of Italy. After suffering
from the persecutions of demagogues, and from the de-
vastations of war, it reposed contentedly under the wise
and liberal administration of Melzi. Foscolo continued
to inhabit Milan : by day immersed in study, his even-
ings were spent in amusements. His sanguine dispo-
sition often led him to try the chances of a gambling
table : when he won, he launched out into extravagant
expenses; he bought horses and dress, arid hired the
most magnificent apartments. When Fortune turned
her back, all this show of prosperity as suddenly disap-
peared ; and he retired into a corner to study.* In one
of these intervals of seclusion, he wrote a translation of
the Hymn of Callimachus on the Hair of Berenice, ac-
companied by a whole volume of comments. The sort
of learning which he here displayed obtained no applause;
but we are told that the erudition thus made show of
had for its aim, not the instructing the ignorant, but the
ridicule of pedants and book-worms. It is difficult,
however, to cull wit from the dry bones of verbal cri-

Under the presidency of Melzi, an Italian legion had
been formed in which Foscolo held a commission. When
Bonaparte formed the camp at Boulogne, for the avowed
purpose of invading England, the division of the
Italian army to which the poet belonged made part of

* Peccbio.


the vast assemblage of troops called together. He held
the rank of captain, and was attached to the staff of
general Tullie. The Italian troops were stationed at
St. Omer and Calais, at which latter place Foscolo
entered on the study of the English language. The spot
which he selected for the purpose of study was curiously
chosen : he was often seen writing with eagerness by
the light of the lamp of the billiard- table, while his
fellow-officers were playing, drinking, and conversing

To exercise himself in English, he undertook the
translation of Sterne's " Sentimental Journey ; " and it
is much praised for the purity of its style. But the
most curious part of the publication is a disguised ac-
count of the translator. Foscolo's excessive vanity
shines very apparent in this account of himself, in which
he indulges in an egotistical description of his own
singularities ; and, according to his old fancy, conducts
himself to the grave, and writes his own epitaph. The
title-page of the translation declares the translator to be
one Didimo Chierico ; and on the character of this
Didimo (being himself) Foscolo fondly dilates ; men-
tions various works of his, the manuscripts of which he
says that he possesses ; and records his eccentricities and
opinions in a manner which excites a smile, when we
remember that he is his own memorialist of trifles,
which it would be hardly worth mentioning when ap-
pertaining to the greatest men. " Didimo entertained,"
he tells us, (c strange systems, which, nevertheless, he
did not defend by argument ; and, as apology to those
who brought forward irresistible reasons, he replied by
the single word ' opinions.' He respected, also, the
systems of others, and, from carelessness or some other
motive, never tried to refute them ; but always remained
silent, without making sign of dissent, except that he
uttered the word e opinions ' with religious serious-
ness. On these systems or notions he founded actions
and words worthy of laughter. He called don Quixote
happy, because he deluded himself with glory and love.



IK 1 drove away cats, because they appeared to him the
most silent of all animals ; at tin- s.une time he praised
them, because, like dogs, they took advantage of society,
and enjoyed their liberty like owls. He did not believe
that you could trust any one who lived next door to a
butcher, or near the place destined for public executions.
He believed in prophetic inspiration, and fancied that
he was acquainted with its source. He accused the
nightcap, dressing-gown, and slippers of husbands, as
the cause of a wife's first infidelity. He gave no better
specimen of his knowledge : asserting that the sciences
were a series of propositions which had need of demon-
strations apparently self-evident, but substantially un-
certain ; and that geometry, in spite of algebra, would
remain an imperfect science, until the incomprehensible
system of the universe was known : and he maintained
that the arts could render truth more useful to men than
the sciences.

" When travelling, he dined at the public tables : he
easily became familiar, though he spoke dryly to the
ceremonious, proudly to the rich, and avoided all sects
and confraternities. He frequented mostly the society
of women ; because he thought them more richly en-
dowed by nature with pity and modesty, two pacific
qualities which, he said, alone temper the combatative pro-
pensities of human beings. He was listened to readily ;
though I know not where he found matter of discourse,
since he would talk a whole evening without uttering a
word concerning politics, religion, or scandal. He never
asked questions, that he might not lead others to answer
falsely. He was glad to receive his acquaintances at
home ; but when walking he liked to be alone, or with
strangers to whom he took a fancy ; and if any of his
acquaintance approached, he took a book from his pocket,
and, in room of salutation, recited scraps from a modern
translation of the Greek poets ; on which he was left

And thus he goes on, for several pages, describing ec-
centricities, partly natural, partly assumed, which he


wished should attract attention, as is evident by his
thus introducing them to the public, who would other-
wise have been ignorant of their existence.

On his return to Italy, he became intimate with 1305.
general Caffarelli, minister of war of the kingdom of
Italy. Warmed by the recent sight of the encampment
of Boulogne, he proposed to the general to make a new
edition of the military works of Montecucoli, with
notes. The text was furnished him by the marchese
Trivulzio, and the edition was brought out with great
splendour ; but Foscolo is accused of having used his
imagination, rather than critical acumen, in the emend-
ation of his author.

The north of Italy was enjoying a great degree of
prosperity at this time. Melzi gave encouragement
to all undertakings that tended to elevate the Italian
character ; and literary men were held in that esteem
which ensures their exerting themselves to bestow on
their country the richest harvest of their talents. Foscolo,
though he still held his captain's commission, was, in
honour of his literary character, exempted from the
toils of service ; and, taking advantage of the liberty al-
lowed him, he left Milan for a time, and took up his
residence at Brescia. He resided in a small house,
situated on an open hill, not far from the city. Here
he was accustomed to study till sunset ; and, whether
alone or in company, he would recite the poetry of the
ancients, or his own, which he was then occupied in
composing. The Brescians are a happy, gay people ;
they live less in the town than the inhabitants of the
rest of Italy, and take peculiar pleasure in rural amuse-
ments ; they are hospitable and fond of festivity ; not
very refined, they are yet open-hearted and cordial,
and noted for bravery when in the field. Foscolo's
neighbours admired and visited him ; persons of every
sect and opinion, even the priests, flocked to his house;
and often seated under a wide-spreading fig tree which
was in his garden, he held forth to a numerous audience.
The Brescians are naturally enthusiastic : he had the

B B 4


art of inflaming the souls of the young, and they crowded
round him as, with stentorian voice, he uttered his moral
apophthegms. AVhen night closed in, he left his rustic
drawing room, and visited the theatres ; and was often
seen paying homage to the dark eyes of some Brescian

It w r as here that he wrote the most perfect of his
poems his " Ode on Sepulchres." The elegance and
pure taste of this composition have caused it to be
compared to Gray's well-known (( Elegy;" but it is
more classical in its ideas and construction, and would
rather remind the reader of Milton's " Lycidas."
Every verse is harmonious music ; and the melancholy
that is cast over it is graceful and touching, not har-
rowing and sombre. A law had been passed at Milan
instituting a public cemetery without the walls of the
city, in which all the dead were to be promiscuously
buried, without marks of distinction. The poet, ad-
dressing Piridemonte, begins by commenting upon
the notion that funeral pomp and an honourable tomb
are of no avail to the dead ; and then he speaks of
the sacred sentiment that leads us to live still with our
lost friends, and makes the spot of their interment pre-
cious in our eyes. Alluding to the new law, he apos-
trophises the muse, asking her if she does not love to
linger near the desecrated tomb of her Parini, w r hose
venerated remains, cast among the bodies of criminals,
are scarcely protected from the assaults of the houseless
dog, while night birds hover, screaming, over it. He
speaks of the pious sentiments w r ith which the sad re-
lics of mortality have ever been regarded since religion
first instituted sacred and social laws; and describes, in
heartfelt but poetic language, the various ways in which
survivors love to pay homage to the beloved dead.
From tender and pathetic pictures of domestic bereave-
ment, he then rises to describe the ennobling sentiment
inspired by a sight of the tombs of the great and good.
He apostrophises Florence, and gracefully brings in the

* Pecchio.


well-known predilection of Alfieri for the aisles of Santa
Croce ,- and then, taking a still higher flight, he de-
scribes Providence and destiny as presiding over the
graves of the worthy, and vindicating their unforgotten
names, even from the silent turf that covers them ; and,
carried away by his love for classic lore, with no forced
digression, he concludes by speaking of the mounds
that still mark the spot where the warriors of Greece
died on the Trojan shore, and describes Homer, the
poet blind and old, wandering around, and bestowing
on them the immortal fame of which they would other-
wise have been deprived.

This anatomy of a poem can convey but a slight and
incomplete idea of its merits. The harmony of the
versification the tender and soft melancholy diffused
throughout the grace of the transitions and the con-
tinual rising in his subject to the end, are all lost. Nor
could a translation do justice to these, since, as evanes-
cent as they are delicate, they would be lost in another
language. The whole poem is Foscolo's masterpiece.

He also published at this time his translation of the
first book of the Iliad. Monti was bringing out his
version, and there was much hardihood in Foscolo's
rivalship. His knowledge of Greek, contrasted with
the other's ignorance, no doubt instigated him. To
remove any unpleasant feeling, he dedicated it to Monti ;
in which he speaks at once with modesty of his own
attempt, and in high praise of Monti's genius. It is
difficult for a stranger to judge between the merits of
the translators ; but even if Foscolo's is the best, it is a
mere fragment. He never published more than the
first and third books; while Monti went through the
labour of the entire translation, and bestowed a com-
plete work on his country.

In 1808, Foscolo was installed professor of eloquence
in the university of Pavia a chair formerly filled by
Monti and Cesarotti. The choice was universally po-
pular ; and his introductory oration, " On the Origin
and Use of Letters," was listened to with enthusiasm.


He had refused to introduce any praise of Napoleon
into it, and the whole was conceived in the spirit of
personal and political independence. This fault \va-
visited with singular severity ; since, after a short time,
the professorship of eloquence at Pavia was entirely
suppressed^ under the pretence of a reform in the plan of
studies, but in reality as a mark of disapprobation. Petty
jealousy and the vain desire of ruling even the thoughts
of the subject world, induced Napoleon on all occa-
sions to punish severely any demonstration of independ-
ence. Nor was the vengeance confined to Foscolo
and Pavia alone. The literary professorships at Bo-
logna and Padua were also abolished, as well as those
for the Greek and oriental languages j for history, and,
in short, all except those instituted to teach law, medi-
cine, and the sciences. Several learned and excellent
men were thus deprived of an honourable living. The
nation w 7 as at once robbed of all easy access to a liberal
education, and to the inappreciable knowledge of those
languages which contain the most glorious monuments
of man's genius : and thus Napoleon gave testimony to
the Italians of the truth of Alfieri's axiom, that absolute
monarchs hate the historian, the poet, and the orator,
and give the preference to the sciences.*

Foscolo retreated from the university to the seclusion
of the Lake of Como ; giving proof of his pure and
ardent love of nature, so rare among Italians, by his
retirement from cities to the sublime and luxuriant
scenery of this lake. He took up his residence at a
villa named the Pliniana, built on the site of the foun-
tains whose periodical ebb and fiow r the younger Pliny
records in his letters. The lake, paled in by mountains,
bathes the w^alls of the villa ; and the neighbouring
banks, clothed with myrtle and arbutus, overhang the
waters, and cast their deep shade on the clear depths :
the precipitous mountain rises behind, diversified by
chestnut woods ; and here and there are seen huge cy-
presses, w r hose spires seem to pierce the skies, when

* Hobhouse's Illustrations of the Fourth Canto of Childe Harold.


regarded from the terraced garden of the villa. The
flowing fountains keep up a perpetual murmur j and,
perhaps, in all the varied earth there is no spot which
affords such a combination of the picturesque., the beau-
tiful, the rich, the balmy, and the sublime. The house
itself, without being ruinous, is huge and desolate ; but
its vast cool halls are a pleasant refuge against the heats
of mid-day, Here Foscolo studied through the morn-
ing, varying his life by spending his evenings with the
family of count Giovio, a man of education and learning,
whose young and gay family served to dissipate the
fumes of melancholy in which the poet was rather fond
of indulging.*

He here commenced his " Ode to the Graces :" this
was a favourite composition, yet left unfinished. He
was never weary of altering or improving of softening
its language, or adding new melody to the versification.
It is purely classical in its idea, yet varied by the most
beautiful touches of natural beauty. He occupied him-
self also by finishing his tragedy of " Ajax." The same
faults are discoverable in this drama as in his juvenile
production of " Thyestes." It is founded on the dispute
between Ulysses and Ajax for the arms of Achilles, and
the self-destruction of the latter. The action ends
almost before it begins ; the scenes are frigid, the in-
terest null ; still it excited a good deal of expectation ;
and reading, as he did, speeches and scenes to various
friends, its representation on the stage was looked for-
ward to with eagerness at Milan. The theatre was
crowded on the first night, and the audience sat patiently
and listened for a long time to scene following scene,
of sonorous words, high-sounding declamations, and
vehement apostrophes, ah 1 leading to nothing, ending in
nothing exciting no sympathy, but wearying the ear.
At length they grew tired ; and though they listened to
the conclusion, it was evident that they were delighted
to be dismissed.

It was a strange accident, that a drama which thus

* Pecchio.


failed of eliciting any interest in the audience, and the
great fault of which was dulness, should have excited
a persecution against its author. His enemies spread
the report that the tragedy had a political aim ; that
Napoleon was symbolised in Agamemnon, the king of
kings ; and that general Moreau was pictured in Ajax,
who deserved, but did not obtain, the arms of Achilles.
There seems to have been no real foundation for this
supposition, but Foscolo did not deny it : he preserved
a mysterious silence ; whether from disdain, or from a
covert pleasure in the annoyance of government, is un-
certain. The ministers of Napoleon were inquisitorial
and revengeful ; not to praise their emperor was sin
sufficient to render any author obnoxious, and any ex-
pressions that could be distorted into blame were cri-
minal. The cities of Italy, whose inhabitants are
forbidden all political discussions, and who are shut out
from the pursuits that naturally excite ambition, are
singularly apt to diversify the monotony of their lives
by gossiping. Such a supposition as the one above
mentioned spread rapidly through Milan : men met
together to wonder and dispute ; they worked themselves
up into an idea that something had been done, and that
something would ensue ; while the spies of the police
excited and reported each unguarded expression. The
city became disturbed by the notion of Foscolo's attempt
to bring Napoleon on the stage as an object of censure,
and in expectation of the punishment with which his
boldness would be visited ; while he, silent and mys-
terious, refused to offer any explanation. It was in-
timated accordingly to him, that he would do well to
change the air; and, submitting to an exile from Milan,
he again visited Tuscany.

He took the house at Camaldoli, near Florence, which
had, in ages gone by, been inhabited by Galileo. He
alludes to this in his " Ode to the Graces," in some
verses which describe the nocturnal murmur of the dis-
tant Arno, which flowed clear yet hid beneath its willows,
and visited the ear of the astronomer as he watched the


star of eve. It was here, he records, that dawn, and
the moon, and the sun displayed to him, with various
tints, the serene clouds that hung below the Alps, or
illumined the plain which stretches to the Tyrrhene sea ;
a wide-spread scene of cities and woods, diversified by
the labours of the happy husbandman, by temples; or
the hundred hills with which, adorned by caverns,
and olive groves, and marble palaces, the Apennines
encircle the lovely city, where Flora and the Graces
have garlands.* In one point, the poetry of Foscolo
may be compared to the more didactic parts of Milton.
He never omits a romantic or classical allusion ; and,
bringing forward all that ennobles and animates his
subject, adorns it with human interest. Whoever reads
in the original the verses I have so lamely translated
into prose, cannot help remembering various passages
inspired by the memory of Tuscany, which show like
pictures of Claude in the pages of the most graceful
as well as the most sublime of our poets.

We cannot refrain from observing, in this place, that
we possess a proof, in the bent of Foscolo's genius, of
how little the intellect is often in accord with the heart.
Wild, vehement, gloomy almost to savageness, inde-
pendent even to an incapacity of yielding to the common
rules of society, he could not depict the wild furies of
Ajax, nor, indeed, the more burning throes that often

Online LibraryDionysius LardnerEminent literary and scientific men of Italy, Spain, and Portugal .. (Volume 2) → online text (page 32 of 34)